The style of yoga that I embrace the most is Ashtanga Yoga. It can be very specific, even a bit militant, in the exact shapes you make. My friends in Iyengar probably find this even more true. Each style of yoga comes with a specific flavor unique to their practice. And it is all very well and good. Style is what makes something unique. However, a different style, doesn’t mean in a general context that a shape is right or wrong. What CAN make it wrong is if it becomes unsafe. Here are some top issues of safety that I believe connects all styles.
Inversions: Looking to the side
If there was a top safety issue that was repeated more often in yoga teacher training, it is this. The cervical spine in the neck is very prone to injury should you look to the side. This is especially true in shoulder stand (salamba sarvangasana), but also for the reverse in chin stand (uttana salabasana). The position of the head should remain neutral in all inversions.
Tree Pose: placing foot on knee
I see this all too often. Most of us will agree that the side pressure to the knee is not desirable, especially those susceptible to cruciate ligament or other knee injuries. The foot should be placed on the calf or thigh, or even resting lightly on the floor.
Shoulders caving in
Look at many planks and pushups. Most people are in a good position looking forward with elbows back. I don’t mean elbows hugging in to the sides, but just so the shoulders don’t cave forward. When I was an Army Drill Instructor, new recruits would almost always pushup with head down, elbows out, and shoulders curved in. Its not a good position. This is very common in chaturanga, almost all forward folds, upward dog or cobra; actually this can be expressed in any pose. Just don’t do it. It causes shoulder impingements leading to possible rotator cuff and other injuries.
Lunge: knees going past the toes
This is a point of contention for me. I still teach this in classes as a general rule. But I don’t think this is a real issue. Look at pictures of people squatting while making dinner or doing laundry in most new world countries, their knees are way past their toes. And, if you look at all pictures of Olympic weightlifters deep in the catch position, their knees are also in this condition. It isn’t a real issue for me.
This is one I see the most. A common cue in yoga is internal rotation of the thighs, which opens the sacrum and overall pelvis in the back. This is crucial to all forward folds, but can be found in virtually every pose. A key way to know that internal rotation occurs is when yogis engage into the ball of their foot. A flexed or flointed foot is desired. Though you’ll see many dancers point their feet. I think this is stylistic, but most in yoga will teach flexed or flointed. This is most evident in one-leg forward folds and in the Marichyasanas. As far as safety, I list this as a lesser issue since I don’t think it will necessarily lead to injury. But, it greatly reduces the effectiveness of forward folds and is an indicator of a lack of proper training and alignment.
There are so many style issues that are important to a practice, but most are largely irrelevant from a safety standpoint. Fingers spread or together, where you look, sometimes foot placement, hand placement, and the transitions are stylistic. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be emphasized if you are doing a specific style of practice. But for a general vinyasa flow class, these stylistic differences aren’t something of great concern.